In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ is Risen!
Mohandas K. Gandhi was the most celebrated leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India. His philosophy of nonviolence and his passion for Indian independence began a movement for freedom that really doomed British colonialism in the Sub-Continent. So revered by the people, Gandhi was given the title “Mahatma,” meaning “great soul,” It was a title reserved for holy men and wise sages. Although he was a Hindu, Gandhi admired Jesus and often quoted Him from the Scriptures, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Once, a Protestant missionary, E. Stanley Jones, met with Gandhi and he asked him, “Mr. Gandhi, I notice that you often quote the words of Christ. Why is then, that you so adamantly refuse to become a Christian?”
Gandhi answered, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Apparently Gandhi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that occurred when he was a young man practicing law in South Africa. He had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the teachings of Jesus in the Bible, and was seriously considering becoming a Christian. With that in mind, he decided to attend a church service. As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice. (“Kaffir” was a nasty and derogatory racial slur that white South Africans used to hurl at black Africans.) Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend the service and pray here.”
The church elder barked at him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”
From that moment, Gandhi said, he decided to adopt what good he found in Christ's teachings, but would never again consider becoming a Christian if it meant being part of the church. Oddly, the insulting racist word “kaffir,” is actually derived from an Arabic word which means “unbeliever.” If Mahatma Gandhi was hoping to become a believer by ascending those church steps, he certainly became an unbeliever as he descended them again.
What we say to people, how we say it, and the spirit in which we say it has a profound effect on people. This example of Gandhi is an extreme one, of course. But sometimes even subtle words or unintended body language can have a devastating effect on people. Because we call ourselves Christians, we need to hold ourselves to a high standard, when it comes to the way we speak to people and interact with people. We are Christ's witnesses in the world. We are Christ's words, we are Christ's voice.
Look at the example from the Gospel today. The Samaritan woman at the well was a “kaffir” to the Jews because of her ethnicity. She was “unclean” because of her sinful life. She would have been thought of as “inferior” because she was a woman. Yet, Jesus spoke to her, and not only did he speak to her, he spoke to her kindly. Jesus, if you can receive this, spoke to her like an equal, like a friend. Don't misunderstand the drink of water. Jesus didn't “command” her to give him a drink. The Lord drew her in by speaking to her in a familiar way: “Hey, give me a drink, too!” We know this because later on He says to her: “If you recognized the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” You see...She would have asked because He asked. He didn't command! But I digress. The Samaritan woman is shocked that He speaks to her at all. And look! He doesn't hate her. He doesn't despise her. He draws her in with love. She sees it in His face; she hears it in His voice, she knows it because of His words. Her heart softens and becomes a fertile field to receive the Words of Life. Because Christ evangelizes her with dignity, respect, and love, she responds to Him. And the result of that, as you know, is that she becomes an evangelist herself.
Now the Epistle for today also has something to say on this theme, but from a completely different point of view. In Acts 11, St. Luke relates that after the martyrdom of St Stephen, some of the Christians fled North...to Cyprus and Lebanon and Antioch. There they preached the Gospel, but really only paid attention to the Jews. Nevertheless, some Gentiles were present, some folks from Cyprus and Cyrene who were Greek-speakers. These guys were very eager to hear the Gospel, but couldn't understand the Aramaic of the preachers. So what did they do? Did they pout because they were ignored? or complain because they didn't understand? Did they protest because they were feeling “excluded?” Heavens no! They determined to take a Road Trip. They went to Antioch in order to button-hole some of the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians for an explanation of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ! And what was the result of their efforts and trials? They Sent Barnabas to fetch the Apostle Paul to Antioch, where he stayed with them a whole year, teaching them in Greek!
So, Mr Gandhi, Mahatma! You were doubtless wronged by those who called themselves Christians but acted like demons. From this we Christians need to learn a lesson, not only about prejudice, but about every way in which we communicate with others. But Mr. Gandhi, Mahatma! You who stood so firmly against the full might of the British Empire! You, who suffered so much and gave so much for the freedom of your country, do you wilt and wither at the mere words of a bigot, and lose the freedom of your soul?
I suppose the lessons here today are: Give no offense and take no offense.
The Apostle James wrote on both of these lessons. He says in James 3: 5-10
The tongue is a little part of the body but boasts great things.
See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
And again, he writes in James 1:2-3 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.